How to Build More Personal Power

What to do when you lack the clout you need.

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It’s a classic career management challenge: dealing with those times when the power we need is not the power we have.

Jean-Louis Barsoux and Cyril Bouquet, a senior research fellow and a professor of strategy respectively at IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, call this the moment when we are a “power-deficient executive,” or PDE. They say that it’s a common ailment and a role that most executives will experience at some point in their careers. Reasons range from the demographic group an executive is in to the level of his or her experience to personality quirks.

The good news, Barsoux and Bouquet write in “How to Overcome a Power Deficit” in the summer 2013 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review, is that “deficits can almost always be overcome by following one of two basic strategies.” Here are some highlights from their article.

Strategy One: Play the Game.

Barsoux and Bouquet’s research came in large part from coaching 179 executives who had experienced a power deficit at some point. What Barsoux and Bouquet discovered is that executives’ deficiencies fall into three major areas: legitimacy, critical resources and networks.

For PDEs who are not in the “in group” and whose lack of legitimacy may be based on an unproven track record or a perceived lack of commitment, one route Barsoux and Bouquet recommend is exceeding the boss’s expectations by “managing up” and focusing on that person’s priorities. “PDEs must uncover the boss’s preferences — such as for email versus face-to-face discussions, brevity versus depth, levity versus seriousness — and adjust their communication styles accordingly,” Barsoux and Bouquet write. “PDEs must also identify the main pressures and constraints weighing on the boss, as well as his or her goals and interests, so they can provide the kind of support that will help the boss succeed.”

PDEs who lack resources can play the game by accumulating social credits, write Barsoux and Bouquet.

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